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Ambassador Leonard’s Participation in American University of Nigeria 13th Commencement Ceremony
May 23, 2022

“Want to help Nigeria and the World? Find a Way to Serve!”


AUN Founder and former Vice President of Nigeria, His Excellency, Atiku Abubakar;

The Executive Governor of Adamawa State, His Excellency, Ahmadu Fintiri;

Former Vice President of Uganda, His Excellency Gilbert Bukenya;

Chairman of the AUN Governing Council, Senator Ben Obi;

President of the American University of Nigeria, Dr. Margee Ensign;

Members of the Governing Council;

AUN Academic Leadership;

AUN faculty members, graduating students, family and friends;

Distinguished guests;

Members of the Press;

Ladies and Gentlemen.

Good morning!

I’m honored to be your commencement speaker today.  It’s a privilege to have received an honorary doctorate from this esteemed institution.

I’m delighted to see you all as we together celebrate these students’ wonderful achievements.

Thanks surely go to the faculty, parents, family, and friends who have guided and supported you – through the highs and lows – every step of the way.  Please give them all a round of applause.

Graduation is a remarkable achievement under any circumstances.  But graduands, yours comes at a time when the world was upended by a global pandemic.

You faced unprecedented challenges, but you persevered.  What a testimony to your strength and resilience!

Enjoy the special moment!  Bask in the glory of your success! You, too, deserve a round of applause!

I am especially pleased to see so many women graduating today.  AUN deserves credit for its tireless efforts in making higher education more accessible and inclusive.

Graduation marks your passage to independence.

It’s a time when you’re faced with life’s big choices: the career you will pursue, the family you will build, and the values that will serve as your anchor.  Let me share my journey around that time.

When I was a student at Boston University, I was drawn to the field of economics, but also continued to study French, my favorite high school subject, because frankly, I enjoyed it so much.  I had no idea where my studies would lead me, but it wasn’t long before this combination naturally sparked my interest in development economics, and especially Africa.

Shortly thereafter, I pursued a Master’s Degree in International Relations, with an emphasis on African Studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.  And by good fortune and effort, this led me to a career in the U.S. Department of State.  Although most of my family are involved in public service, neither they nor I had any exposure to the world of international diplomacy.  In fact, I was the first one in my family to have a passport.  I had to forge my own path, and I did so with the U.S. Foreign Service in Cameroon, Namibia, Togo, South Africa, Suriname, Mali, Ethiopia, and of course, Nigeria.

Whatever path you choose, my graduation wish for you is that you find it as fulfilling as I have mine.  I’ll talk a bit this morning about how you might do that.

I was fascinated to learn that, several years ago, a team of experts at Google in California saw a “bright, pulsating light” on their usage map in Northern Nigeria.  The tech team decided to visit Yola and investigate the source.  They were astounded to discover that the American University of Nigeria was driving more than fifty percent of all Google searches in the whole of Nigeria!  How incredible is that!

Since then, I have always thought of AUN as truly a “bright pulsating light.”  Whatever career you decide to pursue, AUN has provided you with a rigorous education.  It’s provided you with the knowledge and tools to prepare you for your future.  And it has provided you with relationships and a network that will guide you for a lifetime.

AUN has always responded to some of the big challenges of the times.  For example, AUN recently welcomed Nigerian students forced to return from conflict-ridden Ukraine.  During the Boko Haram crisis in 2014, AUN students, faculty and staff fed more than 300,000 internally displaced people.  After “Chibok” students were kidnapped in 2014, AUN led a team to bring back those who had escaped.  Almost all the women freed in 2021 are now studying at AUN.  I commend AUN for facilitating funding for these students from an American donor and the Government of Nigeria, and its commitment to continue doing so.

I am immensely proud of U.S. Mission Nigeria’s efforts in partnering with AUN in expanding educational access to young children in Northeast Nigeria.  AUN is the lead implementer of USAID/Nigeria’s Strengthening Education on Northeast Nigeria, which began in 2019 and will continue until September 2022.  Through this activity, AUN is developing and strengthening the education systems in Adamawa and Gombe to children in primary grades 1-3.

But the truth is that there is no script or algorithm to tackle the unprecedented challenges the world faces today.  As we saw during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world’s leaders did not have all the answers.  It took creativity, innovation, and global collaboration to help lead us from the despair of 2020.

As the most educated and tech savvy generation, you are uniquely positioned to provide fresh solutions to address some of the world’s most difficult challenges.  More than any time before, your community, your country, and the world need you.

For me, no-one embodies public service more than the late former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who dedicated more than 40 years of his life to service in the military, government, and volunteerism.  Speaking to young graduates a few years before his passing, Secretary Powell urged them: (to) “Do something that helps your fellow citizens.  Make sure you give a good measure of your time and talent in the service of others.  The need to serve others has never been greater,” he concluded.

In that vein, I’d like to share a few thoughts today about three critical elements of service, to yourself, to your community, and to your country.

Let’s start with Service to Yourself.  It means taking good care of your physical and emotional needs, your health needs, and your spiritual and intellectual needs.  With Service to self and the resilience it brings, you have a much better chance of becoming the best you can be, wherever your life and your career may take you.

The second important type of service is service to the community.  Many of you are already doing this as part of your community-based curricula.  I am so heartened to hear how many of you are lending your neighborhood or your district a helping hand, either individually or through partnering with an NGO or civic-minded corporation, to solve a local problem or meet a specific need.

Serving your community can also mean staying connected with AUN by mentoring students, expanding professional networks through collaboration, and by innovatively contributing to the institution’s sustainability.  Also stay connected with your alumni network – it will be a useful group of peers to support your life’s work.

One example of a successful alumni group I admire was formed by Nigerian participants of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, or YALI.

The YALI program provides outstanding young leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa with the opportunity to hone their skills at a U.S. higher education institution with support for professional development after they graduate.

There are two of these young leaders that come to mind that continue to inspire me and shine a light on Nigeria.

The first is Segun Odunaiya.  He started his company in 2010 to end power blackouts in rural communities.  The personal loss and illnesses caused by fires and toxic fumes fueled Segun’s determination to look for solutions.  Today, Segun’s company has successfully provided solar powered electricity, water, and additional school facilities to three off-the-grid communities in Abuja.

Segun’s work succeeded because he was highly focused on a specific problem, and he learned through YALI how to network and bring in other partners, such as the U.S. Africa Development Foundation.  His work reduces both greenhouse gas emissions and poverty.

Another inspirational YALI alumni is improving her community through engagement in political and civic life.

Abiodun Essiet serves as the Special Adviser to the Executive Chairperson of the Abuja Municipal Area Council.  Through her role, she created a gender unit in the Council to help develop gender sensitive policies and ensure the inclusion of women and girls in decision making.

She is also helping connect civil society organizations with the local government by facilitating the signing of an open government partnership, which will elevate the role of citizens, community groups and civil society in the creation and adoption of community policies.

I hope the contribution of these two YALI alumni will inspire you to start thinking about how you too can make a difference.

And lastly, the third critical service is service to your country.  Arguably, success in personal growth and community service automatically serves also the national interest, but there is more.  Seeing the big picture, and how you fit into it, is part of being a responsible and caring democratic citizen.

With your background and experience, it will be up to you to recognize the path of service that fits best, but don’t forget that service to your country can take many forms.

Some of you might become entrepreneurs, whose quest for efficiency and advancement will create meaningful employment and sustainable economic growth.  Your ingenious generation will no doubt lead to groundbreaking inventions to address climate change and health challenges.

Some AUN students are already making their mark.  Last year, a final-year software engineering student David Edija launched an innovative new payment platform – Zinger Wallet – for making easy payments and managing finances.  Asked about his success, he noted, “From the moment we got into AUN, we were taught development, community service, leadership…everything about how to better our community, and think of ways to make things that are already working even better.”

Should you choose a path of public service, you may consider a career path running for elective office, working for a national company or authority, or becoming a diplomat (like me!) and represent Nigeria abroad.

And to those of you inclined to express creativity through the arts, remember that art leads to discussions and can cross boundaries, change attitudes, and influence opinions.  Art is a passionate language; literature brings new perspectives; music can unite.  These are forces that can move individuals or even create a movement that changes the world.

There are also abundant ways to serve your country on a personal level, such as advocating for a cause you believe in and casting your VOTE.  All of you can give back to your country and to shape its policies and direction simply by following the issues, by making your voices heard, and by VOTING.  By exercising these rights, you advance public trust in the institution, and provide the necessary direction that every democracy requires.

I can’t stress this enough. Voting is THE way to make your voice heard and to ensure that issues affecting you and your community remain a priority for lawmakers and elected officials.  Make clear to those who may wish to earn your vote what matters to you!

What happens when you don’t vote? Former First Lady Michelle Obama sounded this warning, “You are giving away your power to someone else—someone who doesn’t see the world the same as you.  You’re letting them make some really key decisions about the way you live.  And the truth is, that’s exactly what some folks are hoping you’ll do.  They’re hoping that you’ll stay home so that they can make these important decisions for you.”

Voter apathy is an easy trap to fall into.  We see this in my own country all the time.  I know it is easy to get discouraged and to doubt that your vote will make a difference.  But again, please remember that voting is your voice.  It is only through voting that you can hold those whom you vote for accountable.  It is you, your generation, that has the future of Nigeria in your hands as you become the most significant demographic in Nigerian elections.  And you owe it to yourself and to your country to demand and elect leaders who will govern and provide security, justice, and services for all Nigerians.  This is the call to action for 2023.

Before I conclude my remarks today, I would like to say a few words about the importance of being vaccinated against COVID-19.

You have heard it from your leaders, and from the United Nations, and from the media, but despite herculean efforts to move vaccines – and I would add donations of more than 27 million from my country – so far only 14.6 percent of eligible Nigerians are fully vaccinated, and 36.5 percent have received one dose.  But vaccines are becoming more readily available, and more are coming.

I mention this also because you will be performing all three kinds of Service if you decide to get vaccinated.

The first – You will of course be protecting your own health and the well-being of your family.

The second – You will of course be protecting those who are vulnerable in your community.  Your house of worship, your favorite restaurant, your local hospital will all become a safer place to gather once you are vaccinated.

And finally – If you have the COVID-19 vaccine, then the sky’s the limit. Literally. You can board a plane and travel the world.  But even on a local level, you can travel around Nigeria and bring us all back to a state of normalcy.

In closing, remember you do not have to accept the world as it is. You have an opportunity to shape the world you want it to be.

Congratulations Class of 2022!

Keep shining your light!

Keep making a difference!

Keep making us proud!

Thank you!